I was born and raised in a Bahá’í family in a vibrant rural community in Givogi Village in Western Kenya. I have fond memories of growing up in my village, with many other large Bahá’í families. There were four other Bahá’í children in my class and many more in the whole school. Every Sunday we had a Bahá’í service at the Bahá’í Centre, erected next to my village home in 1966. This was the focal point of the community. Throughout my childhood many great travel teachers and pioneers from around the world came to stay with my family. Many children are named after these travel teachers and I was named after the Counsellor Mr Aziz Yazdi. Many Bahá’í families named their children after pioneers and Hands of the Cause, giving them names like Alai, Samandari, William (Sears) and Hassan (Sabri). The way these travel teachers and pioneers of the faith from around the world: American, British, Persian, would come and sleep on the floor in the humble villages and dwellings, teaching the faith and sharing, broke down barriers and surprised many. Their deeds demonstrated in action the oneness of mankind and also defined to many the approach to a humble path of service. Today my village house in Africa serves the community as a Bahá’í institute in the Tiriki West cluster, in Western Kenya.
How then did I become a Bahá’í? Religion and spirituality played a very important part in many people’s lives in my birthplace. Nearly every family went to church or to the mosque – ‘you belonged somewhere’. It went without saying that I too would eventually need to choose where I belonged. Out of all the different faiths – Bahá’í, Islam, Christian denominations – Baptist, Catholic, Anglican and the Pentecostal churches – and despite the vibrancy of my Bahá’í childhood and community, I was most attracted to Islam. I observed my paternal uncle chanting beautiful prayers in a foreign language (Arabic) as a child and his voice and prayerful devotion were breathtaking to witness. Despite their religious difference, my uncle and father were the best of friends, having a deep bond which went beyond ‘blood brothers’. They were both ‘religious’ and devoted to their faiths. As a child I also observed my father wash and pray three times a day (without fail) – later to discover that he was performing the medium obligatory Bahá’í prayer. I remember my mother reminding us to be quiet as my father was washing, ready for prayers.
On and around my 15/16th birthday, it was time for me to choose where I belonged. I had wonderful memories of the faith and beautiful Bahá’í prayers in my head, which I used to recite regularly. With hindsight, a majority of the Bahá’í youth around me could recite the Tablet of Ahmad and many other prayers by heart by the age of 15. Such had been my experiences with the faith that perhaps I had been moulded and prepared for the day when I was to make my choice. However, one thing bothered me. For the first time I asked my parents why they had chosen to become Bahá’ís and not follow the faith of the majority in the area. The majority faith was easily, and still is, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG). Or why they did not choose any other form of Christianity for that matter, or indeed a better known faith like Islam, so that we could be like the ‘others’ around the village.
The story of how my parents became Bahá’ís is a story in itself. My father explained to me that he had returned home from World War II a disillusioned man, having served in the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in Misri (Egypt), Libya, Palestine and Libnan (Lebanon); he had become an alcoholic. My mother’s travels as a potter and trader would, however, serve to transform him. Mum picked up a leaflet in my local dialect from one of her customers some 40km away entitled ‘Do you know in what age you are living?’ She looked at it briefly and the ‘lady of the house’ asked her to take it home with her, explaining that her husband had joined ‘this’ people (Bahá’ís). According to my mother, the leaflet did not register prominently in her mind. Nevertheless, she put it in her pocket and, once home, emptied her pockets onto the table. The following morning my father was about to embark on his usual quest for the local brew, when he stumbled on this leaflet at the breakfast table and read it. My mother went on with her usual duties but it appears Dad was so affected by what he had just read that he didn’t go drinking at all that day. Instead, he appeared uneasy. However, despite my mother asking him what the matter was, he was not able to explain. In the evening he asked where the leaflet had come from. My mother rubbished it at first, unsure about questions posed by an alcoholic on religious matters.
However, the next day my father resumed his questions, again earnestly enquiring about the leaflet and whether he could meet the people who had given it to my mother. Mum was not keen for ‘an alcoholic’ to mix with her business so she promised my father that she had an order due in two weeks’ time and that when she delivered it, she would let the people know that he was interested in hearing more. According to my mother, these two weeks seemed too long for my father. It would actually be a month before three Baha’i’s made their way to our home to meet my father. The journey was one of 40km, which does not sound much, but at that time there were few or no roads and minimal transport in pre-independence Kenyan villages.
My father declared his faith in Bahá’u’lláh in 1960, on the same day he first met the Bahá’ís. This was during the 10 Year Crusade. My father was very disappointed not to have heard of the Faith while he was serving in Palestine, a decade or so earlier, and to have missed this opportunity while he was in Haifa. During the month of waiting to meet the originators of this leaflet, my father did not drink alcohol. In fact, he never drank again. His life was transformed by the Faith. He needed to make a living for himself, so he turned to becoming a trader and tea farmer.
My mother, being a women’s leader at the local Quaker church, was not about to leave her congregation. They had never belonged to the majority; they had been Quakers. However, during the first year of being a Bahá’í, the change in my father’s behaviour was clear for all to see, including my mother. His faith grew and the way that he put this new faith into action did not go unnoticed. Bahá’í principles such as the equality of men and women were new in this unequivocally male dominated and chauvinistic society. Principles such as the unity of mankind and races did not sit easy at a time when the fight for independence was so fierce and there was opposition to ‘white’ people. My father was seen as betraying the community by bringing ‘colonials’ to his home. After observing my father for a year, my mother secretly decided ‘if this faith can transform my husband to what he now is, leaving alcohol ‘cold turkey’ and playing his part in teaching the faith and reciting his obligatory prayers daily in the space of a year, it must be a true faith; an attestation of the transforming power of The Word of God. She announced on a Sunday in 1961 to a full house at her local church that she would be joining her husband in this great faith which had transformed “my husband from a downtrodden alcoholic to a servant of the Lord”. This journey for them was, however, not without its tests.
In Violette Nakhjavani’s book The Great African Safari: The Travels of Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum in Africa, 1969-73, my mother is pictured (7th picture from the end in the first set of pictures) presenting a pot she made to Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum (c.1969/1970).
A particular memory I have, like it was yesterday, is of the great continental conference held in Nairobi in 1976. I must have been only seven years old at the time but this was the longest journey I’d ever made as a child. We travelled to the big city, not just to any venue but to Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), the premier venue for conferences in Kenya at the time. The Bahá’ís of Kenya had chartered buses (coaches) specifically to ferry Bahá’ís there from around the country. I was on the bus and it felt like half the village was also on this bus singing Bahá’í songs and being very jovial for the long 8 hour bus drive – at least for those hours when I was awake.
Around 1990 while living in Nakuru, Rift Valley Kenya, the Local Spiritual Assembly requested my services as caretaker of the local Bahá’í Centre, after the caretaker had left his post abruptly. It was during this time of reflection and service that ‘someone’ recommended me for service at the Bahá’í World Centre. I had never heard of service in Haifa, so this was not just a surprise but a very pleasant surprise indeed! I served at the Bahá’í World Centre from 1991-92 in Security. In those days there was only one guard on duty at night at the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, patrolling the vast gardens, and I enjoyed those patrols. The bonds of friendships formed during my service in Haifa still bring joy to my heart. I am as close to some of my co-servants as I am to my own blood brothers and sisters. I first met my wife, Judith, in Haifa during our service there, but it was to be another 14 years before we met again and were married.
I arrived in the British Isles in August 1992 and lived in the ‘goal area’ of Painswick near Stroud in Gloucestershire, participating in the activities of the nearest Bahá’í community of Gloucester up until 1993 when I moved to London. In the mid ’90’s I participated in the Hackney teaching project every Sunday, teaching the faith in North and East London.
Being a Bahá’í is a journey. There are tests and difficulties along the way and we are not immune to hardships, trials and difficulties just because we profess the faith of Bahá’u’lláh. I feel blessed that the Faith has carried me all the way from humble beginnings in a rural African community to service in the Holy Land, and then to the British Isles where I now reside with my Dutch wife and my children. We do not feel like strangers in a foreign land. The international nature of my journey attests to the truth of Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”